Remembering Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane / Jefferson Starship (1941-2016)

This week Rock & Roll lost yet another classic legendary artist. The past few months have been rough in the Rock world as we have lost many great artist, some bigger than others but all have had an impact on music or more importantly to this site to centerfieldmaz.

Paul Kantner was born March 17th, 1941 in San Francisco California. He attended a Catholic High School & then finished three years of College between the University of Santa Clara & San Jose State. At an early age he developed a love for science fiction & music. He dropped out of college to enter the music scene & sing protest songs, as he was a fan of Pete Seeger.

Kantner was a very outspoken political anarchist & counter culture advocate. Early on he was an openly admitting drug user, particularly marijuana & psychedelics. Later in life he changed his tune saying "As you get older and accomplish more things in life in general, you realize that drugs don't help, particularly if you abuse them."

The San Francisco music scene was very happening in the mid sixties & about to explode into helping forge main stream Rock & Roll. Janis Joplin, David Crosby & Jerry Garcia were among the many music people Kantner became friendly with. In 1965 he met Marty Balin who was starting to form the Jefferson Airplane.

Trivia: The name origins of the name Jefferson Airplane is disputed. Some say that it was taken from the slang "Jefferson airplane" which is a home made roach clip using a matchstick to smoke a marijuana joint as it got too small to hold. Jorma Kaukonen said it came from a take on old blues names like Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Kantner & Balin recruited female singer; Signe Toly Anderson into the band in a somewhat ground breaking move that is very much over looked through time. She & Balin would share the lead vocals. Next Kantner reached out to his old guitarist friend from San Jose; Jorma Kaukonen to join as well. Kaukonen then got his old pal from Washington D.C. bassist Jack Cassidy to join next. The Airplanes first drummer was Skip Spence (who went on to form Moby Grape) he was replaced by Spencer Dryden. The band played all the San Francisco music clubs (The Filmore, the Matrix,The Avalon Ballroom) & earned a huge local name for themselves.

In 1966 they released their first album, a folk rock album: Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. It sold well going gold even though the band had not played outside of the Bay Area. In October 1966, Signe Anderson became a mother & left the group. Her replacement was an already known female Bay Area singer, who was in a band called the Great Society with her brother in law, Darby Slick.

The chick was Grace Slick, who would help push the Airplane forward into huge commercial success, as she herself would become a pioneeress for Women in Rock & Roll. 

She brought two songs originally written by her "White Rabbit" & Darby Slicks "Somebody to Love". These songs would be huge top ten hits & forever classics breaking the band into the mainstream of the changing music scene.

Their classic 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow, sold a million copies & reached #3 on the charts. The Airplane led the way for the San Francisco groups, along with Janis Joplin (Big Brother & the Holding Co.), the Grateful Dead, Santana, Quick Silver Messenger Service, the Beau Brummels, Sly & Family Stone, Blue Cheer, Country Joe & the Fish, the Steve Miller Band & one of the first all girl bands The Ace of Cups to name a few.

This & the major music festivals, The Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park & The Monterey Pop Festival ushered in the Summer of Love & the influx of hippies & youth to the Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco.

The band purchased a house at 2400 Fulton Street across from Golden Gate Park, where they lived & conducted business. The house & its tales are legendary.

Grace Slick & Paul Kantner 1966

The Airplane played all the major Festivals mentioned, as well as Woodstock in 1969 as one if its headliners. The band was due on Saturday night but didn't get on stage until sunrise of Sunday morning. Later that year they played at Altamont Raceway outside Frisco supporting the Rolling Stones.

This show was a disaster as Hells Angels hired as security killed a man. During the Airplanes set, Marty Balin was knocked out by a Hells Angel trying to stop them from beating another person. Kantner appears in the film on stage very angry at the situation.

The Airplane would get more attention appearing on television shows such as American Bandstand, The Smothers Brothers, the Dick Cavett Show & Johnny Carson. They also received attention from articles in Newsweek & Life Magazine as the scene grew larger.

Trivia: In April 1967 Paul McCartney visited San Francisco & jammed a bit with Kantner & Jorma Kaukonen. Macca had a hard time with Jack Cassidy's bass & it is legend the three then took an acid trip together.

Their commercial success reached it peak & they may have never captured the genius of Surrealistic Pillow again but they continued on still putting out good music & were very popular. Their 1968 album Crown of Creation reached #6 on the charts.

Trivia: On the morning of December 7th, 1968 the band was filmed by Jean Luc Godard playing live on the rooftop of the Schuyler Hotel in New York City. The noise led to the Police shutting down the operation & taking them in, since no permits were ever issued to film or perform. This was almost a year prior to the Beatles famous rooftop performance in London.

1969's Volunteers reached #13. The Volunteers album featured guests Jerry Garcia, Nicky Hopkins, Steven Stills, David Crosby & the Ace of Cups. Two songs featured curse words & made the album controversial. The song "We Can Be So Good Together"  had the lyric "up against the wall mother fu@#er" & "Eskimo Blue Day where Slick sings "it doesn't mean shit to a tree".

Grace Slick had love affairs with everyone in the band (except Marty Balin) & by the late sixties she & Kantner fell in love. The two were labeled "The Psychedelic John & Yoko", in 1971 their child  China Wing Kantner (who later became an actress & MTV VJ) was born. In the mid seventies, Slick would eventually leave Kantner & marry a Jefferson Starship roadie Skip Johnson.

 Jefferson Airplane: Woodstock:

Domestic Battle: Slick was once arrested after an argument with Kantner, as she was intoxicated. She tossed their car keys on to some ones lawn & was later spotted by the cops screaming & intoxicated crawling on the lawn searching for the keys.

The Airplane took a break after China's birth, Slick & Kantner recorded a bit together celebrating China's birth. In 1970 they released "Blows Against The Empire" credited to Jefferson Starship, a sci fi rock experience led by Kantner's love of the two art forms (much like Gene Simmons of KISS). By 1973 Kaukonen & Cassidy left Airplane, devoting all their time to their Hot Tuna project. Dryden had already left after Woodstock.

Trivia: Kantner wrote many of the Airplane's early songs, including The Ball of You Me & Pooneil" "Watch Her Ride" "Crown of Creation" 'Martha" "Wild Tyme" & "We Can Be Together" He & Balin wrote "Today" & "Volunteers". He also co-wrote Crosby Stills & Nash's "Wooden Ships" with them.

The group now officially became the Jefferson Starship. Kantner would be the longest tenured member of the band there from the start to 1984, then returning in 1992- until his death in 2016.

Grace Slick would stay with the band until 1978 & then returned in 1981 to 1984). Marty Balin, the other main member was there from 1974-1978 & again (1993-2008). Bassist, guitarist, keyboardist & singer David Freiberg was with the band from 1974-1984. Other members came & went which also led the band to many different sound variations.

Jefferson Starship 1975
Jefferson Starship: Their main success came in the 1970s with albums such as Dragon Fly (1974) the multi platinum #1 Red Octopus (1975) featuring Balin's "Miracles" which reached #3 on the charts. Spitfire (1976) which reached #3, also going platinum featuring the hit "With Your Love".

Kantner with Jerry Garcia
Earth (1978) reached #5 on the charts, it featured two top ten hits "Count On Me" & "Runaway". This led to a long awaited tour, due to the fact that Balin didn't want to tour. But the Earth tour was a disaster due to Grace Slicks drinking problems, which came to a head in Germany as a riot broke out & the bands equipment was stolen. Kanter eventually had to ask Slick to officially resign.

Freedom At Point Zero (1979) pushed the band to a new direction with singer Mickey Thomas, it was highlighted by the great rocker Jane (#14 hit).

In 1980 Kantner suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at age 39.  He had a serious head injury from a motor cycle accident in the early sixties & the hole in his head left by that accident helped him from serious complications recovering from the hemorrhage.

The early eighties featured a more pop sound with Thomas, also Slick returned in 1981. Kantner left the band in 1984 saying "I think we would be terrible failures trying to write pop songs all the time. … The band became more mundane and not quite as challenging and not quite as much of a thing to be proud of".

He took out  lawsuit preventing the band to use the name Jefferson Starship which resulted in Starship. Under the terms of the settlement, no group can call itself Jefferson Starship without Paul Kantner as a member. Grace Slick had a huge pop hit with Starship "We Built This City" which reached #1.

Kantner with band mate Marty Balin
Kantner joined Balin & Jack Casady for the short lived KBC band in the mid eighties. In 1988 during a Hot Tuna San Francisco gig, Kantner, Balin & Slick all played for the first time since the early seventies. A short reunion tour followed but nothing more ever came of it except a live album.

In 1996 the Airplane were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The original band (with Dryden) all except Slick (who was suffering from a leg infection) played together for the first time since Woodstock. A VH1 Behind the Music was done on the Airplane the next year.

Kantner continued with various versions of Jefferson Starship until his death. They were never a mainstream band again due to all the line up changes. Even with Balin they were nothing like they were in the old days.

In March 2015 he suffered a heart attack, the band carried on without him but he did return  as his band celebrated the Jefferson Airplane's 50th Anniversary with a few small venue club dates. On January 28the 2016, Kantner passed away in San Francisco, due to multiple organ failure and septic shock after he had suffered anther heart attack days earlier. He was 74.

Quotes- Grace Slick: "Rest in peace my friend. Love Grace."

Marty Balin: "So many memories rushing through my mind now. So many moments that he and I opened new worlds. He was the first guy I picked for the band, and he was the first guy who taught me how to roll a joint. And although I know he liked to play the devil's advocate, I am sure he has earned his wings now. Sai Ram 'Go with God.'"

Jefferson Starship on Fridays 1981


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